Ex-Wales rugby star Popham defiant as he faces greatest challenge

Pirate IRWIN
·4-min read

Former Wales flanker Alix Popham was known for his fearless tackling but a decade after hanging up his boots he is coming to terms with the damage caused by years of blows to the head.

Popham, who won 33 caps between 2003 and 2008 and played in two World Cups, was diagnosed with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy last year at the age of just 40.

CTE is a progressive brain condition that is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head and episodes of concussion.

Popham is one of a group of former rugby internationals, including ex-England hooker Steve Thompson, who are pursuing legal action against World Rugby, England's Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

The basis of the claim is that the sport's governing bodies failed to provide sufficient protection from the risks caused by concussion.

"CTE can only be definitively diagnosed for sure once you are dead," Alix's wife Mel told AFP via Zoom from their home in Wales.

"I ain't planning on going anywhere anytime soon," chips in Popham, now 41.

The former back row said concussion was not considered a serious issue during his playing days with Scarlets and French side Brive.

"There was no education on concussion," he said. "I only found out after the scan that 90 percent of concussions happen when you are conscious.

"During training you would be seeing stars regularly after a hit but you were given a dose of sniffing salts, that was the way it was.

"Training was harder than the games. Players who wanted your place were hitting seven bells out of you. It was like the Wild West."

Mel, whom Popham says acts as "his memory", said the symptoms had been there for a while.

"In early 2019 I was noticing clear issues with his short-term memory," she said. "We had a couple of bigger incidents -- he set the kitchen on fire with the grill."

Popham admits he had been putting things off, even though he would come out of business meetings wondering what had been said.

But the crunch moment came in September 2019.

"He went for a bike ride local to the house, which he had done 100 times, but it came to a point where he did not know where he was," said Mel.

"He retraced his route on an app on the phone and came home very distressed and upset."

Mel and Alix agreed they needed to act and after intensive neurological examinations they received the shocking news.

"It was hard enough as it was during the (coronavirus) lockdown so the call was via a screen," said Mel. "He emailed a 50-page report.

"I ran to the downstairs loo and was physically sick. The next four days we were lurching between disbelief, fear and anger."

- Fear -

The news impacted on Mel's health too and forced the couple to make tough decisions.

"You are given a five to 10-year management plan but being very honest with you, we have decided not to accept that, we are still making plans beyond that even if we have had to adapt them," said Mel.

"We took a very tough decision not to have a little brother for our daughter (Darcey), it was heart-wrenching," she added, her voice breaking with emotion.

For Popham, all sorts of thoughts raced through his mind.

"It was a mix of the unknown, the fear of that, the not being able to support Mel and my three daughters (including Holly and Isobel from a previous relationship)," he said.

"Of not being able to make a speech at their weddings or walk them down the aisle. But we made a decision to not take this lying down."

Rugby's governing bodies have not commented on the specifics of the legal case but said in a joint statement that they took player welfare "extremely seriously".

Alix and Mel have helped found charity Head for Change, set up to support ex-rugby players and ex-footballers affected by neurodegenerative disease as a result of their careers.

First on the list of events is a 24-hour virtual cycling event next month called Rugby Ride Challenge, led by Popham and supported by 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas.

It has attracted about 100 former rugby players, including France's 2011 world player of the year Thierry Dusautoir.

The Pophams still have a dream of living by the sea despite the upheaval in their lives but Mel has an even deeper desire.

"My life commission is to keep Alix for as long as possible," she said.

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